By chance, ten years ago, I interviewed Brian Vernor, a filmmaker based in California who was shooting bike flicks on Super 8 film. It was his seminal but gritty ‘cross feature ‘Pure Sweet Hell‘ which instantly grabbed my imagination and that interview sparked my journey back into cycling, leading deep into the filthy, glorious world of off-road riding and racing.
This year, another coincidence, and I’m back in touch with the guys behind straight 8, an international film competition dedicated to the same celluloid format which is now undergoing bit of a retro-renaissance. They’ve been on hiatus, but they’re back and their challenge is simple: make a film on a fifty-foot cartridge of Super 8, shoot it in order, with edits of the hoof (because you have to) and because it’s film you have to do a separate soundtrack to be synced up later. Sounds easy?
At the same time grit.cx columnist and Singletrack regular Greg May was well into his preparation for the Tour Divide, probably the world’s toughest off-road race – the filmmaking planets had perfectly aligned.
Like all the best decisions I rashly hit ‘go’, paid and entered. Before I’d realised it I’m cleaning my camera and before he’s realised I’ve strong-armed Greg into some guerrilla filmmaking.
But don’t they have digital cameras for this sort of stuff?
Yes, but what we are talking about here is shooting ‘real’ film, it’s grainy, it’s interesting, it’s imperfect, it’s challenging. The film stock, Kodak Vision 3, is the same negative film that Hollywood uses, the only difference being we’re shooting at a width of 8mm whereas tinsel town shoots at 35 or 70mm. It’s the same film, the same process, the same look just with a slightly smaller camera.
It’s analogue filmmaking, like riding bikes was analogue before the internet made it all about data, it’s messy, it’s unpredictable and like riding off-road, it’s just more fun.
The straight 8 competition is interesting in itself. You register, you get sent a cartridge of film with two deadlines, the first being the day you have to send your completed film back for processing, the second, the day you’ve got to get your soundtrack uploaded by. There are no rules to the type of film, just that it can’t be any longer than 3 minutes 20 seconds, because that’s all that 50 feet of film lasts for. Processed films are telecined (scanned to a digital file) at high resolution and the soundtrack snapped to the images in the first frame.
There on in its fate is in the hands of the judges, the best eight will get screened at Cannes during the internationally renowned film festival, the next best fifty over two nights at a London west end cinema soon after. Cannes or London, the first time any of the filmmakers will see their films is in a darkened hall packed with their peers, on a massive screen, months after they shot it.
So, the plan was hatched. We’d make a bike film, we’d shoot it in a single day and we’d do it all by bike.
At the beginning of the week I interviewed Greg, chopped his words up to provide a simple narrative and laid it over a bed of some trippy creative commons music I’d found. Soundtrack done I spent a fraught few days working out the shot list – what each should look like, length and possible locations, all written down, in absolute, ordered detail. Friday night, the titles were complete and the equipment packed, tripod lashed to the bike, several kilos of camera, cables, clamps and other necessities in my backpack.
Early-ish, Saturday morning we’re off and onto the fells to start the shoot. Five and a half hours later we’re back in the pub having shot just over 3 minutes of film, 19 set-ups, over a 10 mile loop with a few thousand feet climbing for good measure. We ate burgers, drank beer and reflected on a tough day.
That was back in March, the deadlines were comfortably hit, just the long wait until the winners were announced. This was my third straight 8 film and I’ve never made the cut for Cannes, the competition is always stiff and this year, for the first time, they had a professional industry jury.
Finally, in early May it was results day. Sadly our little film didn’t make the coveted best eight but it did make London, not too shabby considering there were over 160 entrants.
A couple of Sundays ago I went down to the Vue, Piccadilly to catch-up with filmmaking buddies and to watch our bike film for the first time, in front of an eager and enthusiastic audience that literally packed the auditorium out.
The result, well, I’ll let you decide – watch it, it’s not perfect, it’s an analogue Super 8 bike film!